Potty Mouth? No, More Like Potty Pen
I spend a good amount of time in dive bars. Yesterday, in fact, I spent a significant portion of my day sitting outside my favorite watering hole with a group of friends. As it was my favorite (and theirs), we all noticed the most recent addition to the bathroom’s ever-evolving graffiti collection, telling us if we keep fighting over politics, well, then we all “loose.” Hmm…misspelling? Do we all “lose” because politics and bars should be kept far, far apart? Or is it slang “like, yo, we all loose up in here, politics be damned!”
What people choose to write in a restroom is a study of psychology, language, art, and manners. Why do people feel the need to share their ideas to a semi-anonymous audience while on the toilet? In this internet age, when a Facebook update is usually easier to accomplish than a grocery list (“do we, like, have any paper?”), the statements continue to appear, though they are doing so less and less.
Sharpies and tile that doesn’t belong to you have gone together as long as public restrooms and portable ink have been around. While the most obvious place to see graffiti these days will be found in dive bars, we all remember childhood and going to the far back stall at school, armed with a magic marker, telling our little insular world who to call for a good time.
Last year, Troy Keon’s book A Regular Robert Frost: Bathroom Prose and Graffiti was published. The author travels around dive bars in the United States capturing the most striking graffiti he can find. Noticing how more and more chain restaurants and faux-cosmopolitan eateries keep popping up in the American landscape, he seeks out the underbelly’s underbelly: its toilet—a place becoming less common in the average American’s drinking and/or dining experience. Keon says, “Many of the bathroom walls that once hosted art or graffiti are now freshly painted over, spruced up with a fake plant or a doily. Forever gone is some of the most provocative art, but this book has captured it.”
Luckily, Keon isn’t the only person with this idea. Magnifying the normal bathroom by leaps and bounds, legendary NYC punk club CBGB’s had the bathroom to end all bathrooms when it came to graffiti. When they closed in 2006, all the street art, phone numbers, and drunken sentiments slashed onto its walls were apparently lost forever. Enter artist Justin Lowe, who has recreated the iconic loo for the upscale Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT.
New Englanders can now pay a fee to view where Joey Ramone peed.
While Keon and Lowe are recognizing something we all have come across our entire lives as an art form above its face-value definition—which is at the very least destruction of property—at its worst defamation of character, libel, or profanity; the most fascinating part of their work rests in the ability to make everyday people (Ivy League preppies, even) pay for the pleasure of looking at pictures or recreations of places they’re scared to step foot in. While this is also the case for, say, war journalism or certain exotic National Geographic locations, it’s different in that the subject matter exists here in our own cities, its creators are our neighbors, its message the struggle of the youth and the drunk in our own backyard.
Graffiti’s made its way into journalism too. As we mark the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, photographer Richard Misrach is releasing Destroy This Memory, a book whose entire text is the words written on the boarded up or abandoned properties of 2005 New Orleans. There is no human being in any of the seventy pictures in the book, yet, as NPR recently stated in its review of the book, “voices are at the center of every frame.”